Medeski Martin & Wood :: 02.25.05 :: The Egg :: Albany, NY
Jazz is arguably one of America's finest contributions to the fabric of world culture. Born of a distinct sociopolitical environment, jazz as an art form, not only pioneered "coloring outside the lines" musically – it made deviation from the norm cool. With the dissolution of traditional notions of form and structure and the corresponding synthesis of a new sound, born too was a new language and lifestyle, a new scene - a new groove.
The Egg :: Albany NY :: 2.25.05
Fast forward to the year 2005. That innovative spirit of jazz is alive and well, thriving in fact, in our jamband scene today. Medeski Martin & Wood, as keeper of the groove, exemplifies this experimentation on the sonic edge. On a recent Friday night in Albany, NY, MMW made a pit stop to showcase this verve.
Everything about MMW exudes hip – from their sound to their persona. Their label, Blue Note Records, is the epitome of hip in the jazz realm. The sold out audience was full of hipsters and cool cats diggin' the beat. Hell... even the venue, The Egg, is far out. (And if Hampton Coliseum is the "mothership" then The Egg is a rocket ship!) Utilizing the theatre's amazing acoustics and wielding their unique brand of "outta-this-world" jazz-fusion, MMW would launch us into another dimension.
MMW :: 2.25 :: The Egg, NY
Drummer extraordinaire Billy Martin would be the point guard on this night leading the trio right from the jump. In typical MMW fashion, "Illy B" began the adventure with abstract clanging and banging from various percussive instruments, many of them homemade. The mysterious musings had an Eastern vibe – perhaps the soundtrack to a martial arts movie or maybe even chimes being increasingly agitated by the wind in anticipation of an approaching storm.
The tempest would come as Chris Wood on upright bass and John Medeski on keys joined the fray. The ensuing dissonant exploration was spacey and like any fine art, left plenty of room for interpretation. But even in this aural anarchy there was a semblance of an underlying theme. Kindled in the imagination was an early 1970's Grateful Dead "Playing in the Band" jam, or perhaps even more so, some Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock fusion from the same period.
John Medeski :: The Egg :: 2.25
As always is the case with MMW though, the true orgasm is reached when they spontaneously and simultaneously drop into The Groove. The funk is thick. The jam is tight. It's unmistakable. The crowd roars. Heads nod. Smiles permeate and radiate understanding. One by one people jump out of their seats and begin to boogie and flail their limbs, giving the appearance of an exorcism or a healing mass where we have all just seen the light. Yeah... this is it! This is the church of life. And Mr. Medeski is appropriately praising this holy temple of existence with a searing sermon on organ. Wood is blessing us with a deep, deliberate heartbeat on upright. Martin is preaching the gospel, expertly working the skins.
Perhaps it's this parallel universal of harmonious existence that one finds in MMW's music that gives the band their tremendous appeal. By juxtaposing chaos and order, darkness and light, challenge and triumph, and past, present and future, MMW run the gauntlet of human emotion and experience.
Martin truly dazzled the entire evening as the floor general, hand signaling tempo and lead changes to his teammates. Martin's versatility behind the kit makes him an "MVP" in the drum circle. From hip-hop to bop, swing, classic jazz, funk, and even a touch of house, Martin's level of skill at individual styles and the ease with which he flows from one to the next is the core from which MMW operates.
Billy Martin :: The Egg :: 2.25
With that said however, only two musicians with the genius of Wood and Medeski can complete this "Jupiter Jazz." Wood's bass was the vertebrae to Martin's nerve and fluid. [For a recent interview with Chris Wood, go here.] Together, their spinal column of air-tight groove provided Medeski the mobility and flexibility to take bold solos and blast off on intergalactic flights of fancy. This complete MMW package was on display particularly during "Mami Gato," a track off their latest album, End of the World Party (Just in Case). The tune was a fifteen-minute journey into the heart of "real jazz," triggering images of Sal Paradise being "On the Road" at the genesis of the scene. Tickling the ivories, Mr. Medeski displayed unusual soul while Wood's bass emitted a huge, full, bending bellow and Illy B dropped the "ill" drum science.
To the chagrin of many (judging by audience response), this wasn't a standard MMW show. For starters, Medeski had a new home... stage left. Also, though it wasn't a two set show, the lone set, including the encore, was nearly two and a half hours long. Finally, many of the "standards" MMW fans have come to expect were absent as most of the songs that were decipherable came from the new album. However, even the songs that were identifiable, like "Sasa" and "Reflector," were very loose in structure and full of improvisation, averaging well over ten minutes a piece.
MMW :: The Egg :: Albany NY :: 2.25.05
Some stand out selections included "Shine It" and "Queen Bee," also off Party. The former sounded as though piano-toting Schroeder and the rest of the Peanuts cartoon characters decided to be Ken Kesey's house band. The latter was a succulent, smooth, and fiercely funky set closer. The encore would be "Olde Wyne" and a familiar front-of-the-stage acoustic jam featuring Medeski on Melodica to seal the deal on an amazing evening.
The bottom line is that this trio knows, loves, and understands music. While making a living off of musical risk taking, MMW produces a sound that is fresh, alive, and constantly transforming. Their music is straight up cool. Yeah... the spirit of jazz is alive and well alright, and MMW may just be the best band playing music today.
Words & Images by: John Smrtic
JamBase | Albany
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